Two Poetry Winners
y name is Kathleen Flenniken and I am delighted that my first collection of poems, Famous, will be published by University of Nebraska Press in the late summer. I begin with two enthusiastic book recommendations: Cortney Davis’ Leopold’s Maneuvers, (Bison, 2004) and Rynn Williams’s Adonis Garage, (Bison, 2005). Both are previous winners of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. I’m proud to be
following in their footsteps.
I’m interested that all three books—Famous, Adonis Garage, and Leopold’s Maneuvers, ostensibly
cover similar terrain—women at the midpoint in their lives, considering their marriages, their parents and children, and their places in the world around them.
Such different worlds and approaches, though. Adonis Garage is
set in a degenerating New York City, and locates beauty and clarity in
its crumbling surroundings. "Arc of Desire," a poem triggered by the
report of a drugged teenager falling off the roof of a building, makes
the act alluring:
[…] Maybe it was the smoke
held tight in his lungs, that throbbing and the way
it went shivering out through his chest and shoulders
that made him want to tear all his clothes off
and throw himself into the sun, like Icarus, exploding
over the side of the building in a wild arc of desire,
eyes fully open, chest bare and arms flung back like wings.[…]
speaker further embellishes the fall, perfecting its beauty, setting it
on one of those days in March "when there are buds on the vines, a
light touch/of green just outside the window[,]" which leads her to
remember her own desire, her own fall. I love the way Williams moves in
these poems, fluid, smart.
One of the most provocative figures in the book is her father, who
long ago removed himself from his family to matter-of-factly pursue his
dissolution. In "Blue Angel" the daughter is checking up on him after
[…]Next to him on the low table there’s a vase
of pastel peonies so full and heady, they’re nearly obscene.
I want to move them to the windowsill, but no,
he says they’ll wilt in the heat. He says,
I was awake for the whole thing—
and I too hear the snips, the chunk of the staple gun.
His taut cheeks look like the skin on a roast bird,
with livid seams from temple to earlobe,
blood and black thread behind the ears.
So how do I look, he says, with a hand at his hairline.
Like Dietrich in Blue Angel, I say, looking down.[…]
is that unwillingness to sentimentalize, that inclination to name what
she sees so clearly—the "obscene" peonies, the father’s cheeks "like
the skin on a roast bird," his likeness to Dietrich—that gives
Williams’s collection of poems its weight and fascination. This is not
your average Dad. This is not your typical American mom in the suburbs.
The combination of subject and studied eye is powerful.
Cortney Davis is a nurse in her other life, and Leopold’s Maneuvers
is as humane as it is unshrinking. One of the great pleasures in this
book is its wisdom. Something about seeing people die everyday at work
seems to have clarified for Davis what’s important and what’s not. In
"To Make Nothing out of Something," the nurse drives to work listening
to a CD of poems all about the dailiness of life—washing dishes,
walking dogs. The poems "evaporate, little smoke wisps" as soon as she
leaves the car. But inside the hospital, the doctors and nurses "chant
their own rhymes…their voices so incredibly light it seems their
desires / are only mortal: to make nothing out of something—
as if the spread of cancer was a mid-morning stroll
and the rebellious breast a marriage easily severed.
Then, down the hall, I walk unannounced into the room
where a man cries because his wife’s nodes are positive,
and she, delirious, tries to pluck her body clean
while the intern, not yet expert,
explaining everything, rocks on his heels,
and rocks and rocks and rocks."
admire this book because it’s not a prettified version of life. It is
the good and the bad distilled, and forgiven. And it is a book rooted
in the pleasures and pain of the female body. Davis is not an onlooker,
she is a participant, as in this memory of a doctor’s visit:
[…]He tips the Gentian Violet
onto white gauze (like petals of my mother’s violets
dipped in sugar). Then Mother
opens my legs as if I’m swimming underwater,
ready to kick and streak away
while the doctor paints down there,
what we call the place I have rubbed raw.
I hear the bottle empty, the bag
lift again into the doctor’s hand, the sound
of their four individual feet walking out the door.
The door hugged its scrim of light,
the ceiling lowered over me.
All night the purple shield between my legs
a beacon from a lost ship for everyone
to see and be drawn to. ("Treatment")
Both books are superbly crafted and musical. More than that, they are substantial, so much more than "little smoke wisps."